Longtime practitioners, Carol Evans and Sherman Swanson, share lessons learned on how to conserve and improve essential riparian resources for ranchers and wildlife alike.
This old saying still rings true across the West where wildlife, livestock, and people depend on this resource. Better put – in sagebrush country, water is life, and collaboration is the key to preserving this critical critical resource.
Only two percent of the sagebrush biome’s 175 million acres is considered “wet,” and most of that is found on private lands. Much of the precipitation this region receives comes in the winter as snow. In spring, snow melts and feeds streams, springs, and wet meadows, creating emerald isles in the sagebrush sea where people, livestock, and wildlife concentrate. Restoring and conserving these limited resources is a major part of Working Lands for Wildlife’s efforts in the West. Properly managing riparian grazing is a critically important tool in these efforts.
We sat down with two experts in this field to learn about riparian ecosystems, managed riparian grazing, and why managing riparian grazing produces better outcomes for people and wildlife.
For three decades, Carol Evans, a now-retired fisheries biologist with the Bureau of Land Management in northeast Nevada, worked with producers to implement managed grazing in riparian areas and to monitor how those areas recover following changes in grazing patterns. Evans’ work has been featured in two recent films she helped produce, Creating Miracles in the Desert: Restoring Dixie Creek and Changing a Landscape to a Lifescape: The Humboldt Ranch Story, both of which showcase inspiring stories of just how effective these practices can be.
Dr. Sherman Swanson is an emeritus rangeland and riparian scientist with the University of Nevada-Reno and Nevada Cooperative Extension. He and Evans coauthored (along with Sandra Wyman, a range specialist with the BLM) a 2015 paper in the Journal of Rangeland Applications called, “Practical Grazing Management to Maintain or Restore Riparian Functions and Values on Rangelands.” The paper details the various strategies and tactics that land managers and producers can implement to manage riparian grazing and recover riparian vegetation and stream function.
Carol: I’m always talking about “stream stories.” I’ve been following these places for decades and I always want to see what’s in the next chapter. I’ve been able to see all the cool things that are happening with these streams, and I want people to see what I’ve seen.
It still shocks me that so many people have no idea that streams, here in Nevada at least, could be anything beyond dry, gravely washes with no plants and almost no water. I want people to see what’s possible, not just for the streams in the videos, but for almost any stream on the range.
Sherm: Here in the West, they’re that green zone along streams, rivers, and wet meadows; that place where plants can regularly access water. These plants have deep roots that hold soil in place, so that stream banks can withstand floods, droughts, and fires and then regrow. They’re a special place that 75 to 80 percent of the animals that live in the Intermountain West depend on at some point in their lives.
They’re important not only because of how they support all those animals, but also because of how they help store water. The roots of those plants and the wood and organic matter that they’re made of act like a big sponge that soaks up water. When things start to dry out, that sponge can release water back into the system when it’s most needed, which has huge value to wildlife, livestock. and people.
Of course, green riparian areas are where people want to recreate. Most of the hiking trails, campgrounds, and other recreation opportunities are located near riparian areas, at least here in Nevada.
Carol: In my career, there has been a big change in how we view these areas and understand all the important ecological services Sherm described. In the late 1970s, I took a class in rangeland management where the instructor drew am illustration of a riparian area in the middle of a pasture and told us it was a sacrifice zone and that we didn’t need to care about what happened there. The uplands were more important. I feel like we’ve really come a long way in understanding how important these places are.
I think a real eye-opener, at least out here in Nevada, the driest state in the country, has been how much water there is in healthy, functioning riparian areas. People notice when there’s water on the land and when water becomes scarce, everyone pays attention.
Carol: As Sherm pointed out, the majority of animals here in the West rely on riparian areas, but they only comprise one or two percent of the Western landscape. So, they’re hugely important, but cover very little of the landscape.
Sherm: The biggest difference is access to water. Both upland and riparian plants rely on soil and the amount of moisture in that soil. In riparian areas, the soil and all the organic matter in it hold much more water and hold it for much longer than the upland soils. That means riparian plants have access to more water and for longer. Upland plants have to survive with much less water than riparian areas.
Carol: The other difference I think about is that with water, riparian areas are much more forgiving. You can make mistakes, do a lot of things, and have a lot of impact. In fact, riparian areas are predicated on disturbance, especially from floods. Upland areas are not so forgiving. Uplands are tough to recover when you’ve got fire and invasives and drought.
Sherm: It’s huge. My first graduate student back in the ‘80s studied plant roots because, at the time, I was interested in roots and was studying wet meadows that provided habitat for sage grouse. She found that some plants had root systems that were far more extensive than others. She measured over a mile of roots and rhizomes in a four-inch cube of soil growing Nebraska sedge.
We now call those types of plants “riparian stabilizers.” The important thing about those riparian stabilizers is that 1) those root systems put organic matter in the soil and 2) they hold soil particles together, preventing erosion. That stabilization holds streambanks together during tremendous floods. The roots and rhizomes that act like cement and rebar that lock that soil into place. Stream banks that resist the force of water in a meander, form pools, undercut banks, and other features that make great fish habitat. The tops of the plants also slow down water and act with floodplains to distribute energy dissipation.
Carol: From a management perspective, plants are really the key to healthy and functioning riparian areas. Once you get plants established, this sets into motion what I call a powerful chain reaction of events leading to better habitat conditions for fish and wildlife and often, return of beaver, which leads to aquifer recharge. But it has to start with those plant communities. Just get that started with your management and whatever else happens – flood, fire, drought – the stream will deal with it and, in many cases, even improve following these events.
Carol: In 2015, I worked to answer that question here in the BLM’s Elko District. I looked through historical surveys of more than 900 miles of perennial streams that we had spanning back to the 1970s and found that roughly 60 percent of them had improved, which is great. But despite improvements, many of them still have a ways to go.
If you look at historic data sets and the current condition of small seeps and springs that are scattered all over the place, probably a vast majority of them are in tough shape.
Sherm: The history of grazing, especially public lands grazing, was a tragedy of the commons. There wasn’t a law about grazing on public land until the Taylor Grazing Act in the 1930s. And when the BLM was formed in 1946 [by combining the General Land Office with the Grazing Service] it lacked the capacity, funding, technical expertise, or laws to be very effective. Ultimately, managers figured out to reduce stocking rates and scatter livestock across allotments. So, livestock were better distributed, but any riparian areas in those allotments were grazed all year long.
Now we know we can get better forage if we move animals around, and we have tools like low-stress stockmanship to do that.
I would say across the range, the condition of riparian areas is somewhat in the middle. But looking at the average condition isn’t very useful. Some places are wonderful; others are devastated. The good news is that we have great opportunities to get a ton of healthy functioning riparian areas without a ton of expense. We need time, willing land managers and owners, and a vision for functioning riparian areas, but we don’t need a lot of heavy infrastructure and money to get there. We can take a riparian area from functional at risk to highly functional very quickly with a bit of effort.
Carol: I agree, absolutely!
Sherm: Grazing wasn’t the only thing that impacted riparian areas though. Beaver trapping has had a major influence on many streams. The trapping of beavers and the ramifications of that is well documented. Ben Goldfarb’s book Eager, The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter does a great job of documenting these changes. And as Carol said, if you can bring back plants like willows, the beavers come to expand the wetland riparian area. Then ranchers, fish and so much else has water during drought.
Channelizing and diverting streams, spraying herbicides on riparian plants, removing wood from streams, building roads near streams – there were lots of things beyond grazing that affected riparian areas. Of course, one of the biggest impacts was draining and “reclaiming” wetlands for agriculture or development.
Sherm: No. The good news is that we now have a whole tool shed full of livestock management options to improve riparian health, and we don’t have to reduce stocking rates to meet our goals.
Carol: The focus of all the grazing plans I worked on was improving riparian areas through controlling timing of grazing rather than through the reduction of livestock numbers.
Reducing livestock numbers to limit grazing impacts to riparian areas means you’re only managing for the small, one or two percent of the landscape that is riparian. That doesn’t work.
Sherm: It starts with looking at the whole pasture or ranch. How much upland habitat is there? How much riparian habitat is there? In the past, we used to think only the uplands were important. We don’t want to shift so far that we only think about the riparian. We need to think about them both.
The real key to riparian grazing management is about animal movement. If there is no animal movement, then the only tool we have is a reduced stocking rate. If there is animal movement, then decisions center on the timing and duration of the grazing and the recovery periods. Does that movement allow those plants enough time during their growing season to grow and do what they need to do? When are these plants being grazed and when is that in their lifecycle, this year and other years?
If we can mix that up and give plants chance to do all the things they need to do like grow leaves, roots, flowers, and seeds, and they’re getting to do all of those things over the course of time, then riparian grazing will have limited impacts because the plants’ systems can recover from grazing. If they’re unable to do those things over time because they get grazed at the same time every year or intensely during a key point in their life cycle, they won’t be able to recover, and the riparian system that depends on plants will degrade.
We have to really pay attention to where the animals want to go. If we recognize how animals work the land, we can work the animals to our benefit. That’s really important.
Carol: Yes, it’s really about time and timing. With grazing done with the right timing, these areas can become more productive. For riparian areas, it really comes down to not being there during the hot season year after year.
I’ve come to see degraded riparian areas and healthy functional riparian areas as two different worlds. Degraded areas have lost so many important functions, while healthy riparian areas provide a long list of critically important environmental services.
The most important thing in all of this is what the permittee or landowner wants to do and can do. It’s fairly simple and super effective just to give these plants enough time to grow or recover from grazing at least some of the time over the course of implementing a grazing system. at different times of the year. The least effective tool is managing riparian areas for specific things like stubble height, utilization rates, or levels of bank trampling.
Sherm: Successful riparian grazing is not about standard answers, it’s about being thoughtful and keeping plants healthy by allowing them enough time to recover from disturbance. Ecosystems can spiral down, and they can spiral up. If plants get the time to do what they need to do, then the whole system spirals up pretty fast.
Carol: In our desert, having green feed and water is something people notice. When you go to the streams that have had 20 or 30 years to recover, many have become these vast beaver wetlands. I go to places where 30 years ago, it was a gravel streambed; now I can’t even take my photos because the water is so deep. There’s something there for ranchers. Because at the end of the day, it’s about water as much as economics.
But they also feel a lot of pride in the results. And that’s really important, too. Once they become partners and see what’s possible, they want to do more.
Sherm: If you think about why people stay on ranches, why they work so hard and don’t cash out and sell their land, it’s largely because of the landscape’s natural values – the wildlife, the plants, etc. They want to prosper, and we want them to prosper.
Good things happen when people get together and try to figure out how to do good things. That’s happening a lot more now across the range and it’s great.
Sherm: Yes, some places are better able to recover, and your restoration money goes a lot farther when the location is ready to recover. You get more return for your investment. But most of these riparian areas are capable of recovery if given enough time and enough of what they need – sediment, organic matter, riparian stabilizers, woody debris, etc.
Of course, sometimes the best investment is not making things better, it’s keeping things from falling apart. And that’s often not very expensive.
Carol: Folks should always start with a proper functioning condition assessment. It’s the very best way to get people on the same page to identify where to work, identify places at risk, agree on ways to keep those spots at risk from crossing an ecological threshold, and agree on what outcomes we want.
There are lots of opportunities to restore riparian areas. In my career, I was involved in improving roughly 250 miles of riparian areas on the Elko District through managed grazing thanks to the support of colleagues, ranchers, agencies, and others. And that’s just on one district in northeast Nevada.
Sherm: First, I would encourage folks to scale up to the whole ranch. Sometimes we work at the project level, but those efforts should be expanded to the whole ranch where we may be able to solve multiple problems with one ranch modification.
It’s all about animal movement, so in places where pasture fences are limited, maybe coalitions of grazing families can work together to manage their pastures. A great example of that is up in Rich County in northeast Utah with the Three Creeks Grazing Project. The families didn’t have enough space to get the movement they needed, so they started working together and are doing a great job.
I think there are a lot of places like that where we could look at combining herds to have a bigger herd in a place for a shorter time, so we have a longer recovery time by moving that herd to some other place.
Carol: There are other tools we can use, too – use of riders to move cattle and virtual fencing are two. And agencies, like the BLM, are working to add more flexibility to permits. So those three things will help, because as Sherm said, it’s all about moving animals.
Sherm: We took a big step forward when we all learned to sit in a circle. When politicians, biologists, fisheries folks, ranchers, range managers, and others get together and collaborate, it’s powerful. The more we can get that happening, the more we can scale up.
We’ve finally realized riparian management doesn’t have to be divisive. Private lands have a huge opportunity for riparian restoration, and I’m not bashful about telling ranchers it’s in their own best interest to manage for healthy riparian functions. Most ranches are in the low-gradient floodplain and have the highest level of need for proper riparian functions and the highest level of payback when they’re functioning properly because they can produce so much forage.
Watch Carol Evans’ videos:
Read Carol and Sherm’s paper:
Watch technical presentations about riparian restoration from a WLFW-sponsored symposium at the Society for Range Management Conference in 2018.
Explore WLFW’s Water is Life Campaign Materials